I Went to ‘Oldchella’, Felt Old, and Loved It
Twenty-eight years old, I’m sitting on a pristine grass field that happens to be in the middle of a California desert, when I realize that I really need to pee. I’m at Desert Trip, or, if you prefer, ‘Oldchella’, the inaugural (and maybe once-in-a-lifetime) music festival featuring six legendary rock n’ roll acts. It’s Sunday night, The Who have just finished a raucous set, and our friends are off checking out the merch tent, so it’s just my wife and I chatting as we hold our spot in the crowd. I tell her that I’m going to the bathroom and will be right back, and I walk away, leaving her alone because she’s a grown ass woman and can hold her own even among 70,000 people. We’d been to four editions of Coachella at this same venue, as well as numerous other festivals, so while there’s a new vibe to this one many of the tropes and motions here are pretty familiar — including navigating a massive throng of people.
Weaving my way back through the dense crowd, average age fifty-one, I’ve got a pep in my step because there are several beers about to break the levee of my bladder and because Roger Waters, who is closing out the first weekend of the festival, is scheduled to take the stage in a few minutes. My wife saw him perform The Wall several years back, one of the few memorable concerts we hadn’t experienced together, and she’d raved about it ever since, stoking my jealousy and anticipation for this finale show at Desert Trip. Better hurry, don’t want to miss a second of it.
I do my business at one of the upscale portable bathrooms, ostensibly an accommodation tailored for the older, classier-than-usual festival crowd. They have actual toilet seats and toilet paper and hand soap, a far cry from the sometimes putrid porta-potties I’m used to at these types of things, which can challenge even the strongest stomach and existential fortitude. I get-in and get-out rather quick, and heading back toward the stage I’m overcome by a strong wave of happiness. Partly because I’m reflecting on a great week of west coast travel and a weekend full of live music, basically my favorite things to do. But I’ve also got to give some credit to the edible I munched about forty minutes ago.
Feeling good, I audible and head for another drink, one of these tequila-spiked lemonades with ginger and cayenne, which I’ve decided are the perfect hybrid of buzz-inducing and sinus-clearing for the dry, dusty atmosphere. Fifteen dollars. I haven’t thrown cash around like this since I was studying abroad in college and convinced myself that Euro coins were funny money.
With the concessions crowd thinning as the show is about to start, I’m able to walk right up to an open bartender without a wait. He meets my eyes and raises his eyebrows, a tacit “What can I get ya?”
“How’s it going,” I say.
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day,” he says.
I smile, I think, because the reference spurs my excitement for the show and the way he says it is almost perfectly eerie, trippy maybe. I tell him I want the spiked lemonade with tequila and lots of cayenne. He nods, slides a few yards down the bar to grab the right booze, then starts to pour.
“You’ve seen him before?” I ask, assuming the lyric-drop means he’s a fan.
“Yeah,” he says. (Then something about the first time being ‘89.)
“What do you think he’s gonna do tonight?” I say. “The Wall? Any Darkside?”
“I think he’ll do a mix of it all,” the bartender says. “He’ll show this crowd that he’s got more depth than anyone thinks, lots of great songs. His sound is also incredibly good, like three-hundred-sixty degrees. He’s gonna blow your mind.”
As he’s saying this, whistles and hoots and claps rise up out of the crowd, a response to graphics flickering on the massive screens behind the stage. Moments later the band drops into Breathe. Dark Side of the Moon. Holy shit, yes.
I slide the guy a nice tip because why the hell not, I’ve already sunk hundreds of dollars into this thing, I just perfectly timed a pee break, and by the first few sounds I can already tell this last show is going to be epic. Turned toward the crowd, power-walked back to my crew, and let the music wash over me.
Roger Waters delivered, it was incredible and a three-hundred-sixty degree immersion indeed. At some point during a song break I momentarily snapped out of a Floyd hypnosis and thought about all that I’d taken in throughout the weekend, playing back the highlights of the other shows in my mind:
The Who brought punching, straight-forward rock and Pete Townshend’s windmill. I’d seen them almost ten years ago and this time around the fidelity seemed just as high. Lossless live format.
McCartney’s set played like everyone’s favorite variety show, proving that, even if he’s not your favorite Beatle, he’s really the only one (alive or otherwise) up for the task of carrying the commercial empire of the world’s best pop band. Consummate professional, glad to finally catch Sir Paul.
I’d seen Neil Young before, but this time I felt he brought a renewed energy and a hit-packed setlist, full of some blistering, long, mid-song jams. He actually won me over with a couple of new songs, too. The guy did this all while wearing a t-shirt that read WATER IS LIFE. C’mon. He summons the gentle badass in all of us, I think.
The Stones were, for lack of a more original analogy, cooler than the other side of the pillow. To see them live is to understand that they are a veritable blues rock band, made up of a bunch of pirates, and to marvel at the fact that they are still playing, together. Because of the money? Sure. But their addictions to music and whatever brotherhood remains between them are what really shine through.
Finally (or first, by order of appearance), Bob Dylan impressed despite low expectations. I’d heard he might just go rogue, mumble into the mic. What he did do was play a bunch of great songs rather well, though in mostly unfamiliar arrangements. Honestly, just seeing him live — a living relic — was the treat. Enigmatic, but not bad at all.
As I unabashedly air guitar-ed all weekend alongside other dad-types, I thought about many things, but two themes played on loop. For one, I was reminded again and again of the prescience of these artists—their work full of incisive messages hidden in songs up to fifty years-old, songs about what might happen to the world if we don’t let our inner rebel roam free from time to time, if we don’t respect the earth, if we don’t find a way to love each other.
Roger Waters eviscerating Trump on screen, ha ha, charade you are blasting crisply from the speakers.
Neil Young imploring, look at mother nature on the run, in the twenty-first century.
Then McCartney bringing back Neil for a sing-along of give peace a chance.
I also thought about aging. This was ‘Oldchella’, after all. And it was no one’s first rodeo — not the organizers’, not the fans’, definitely not the performers’. While representing the younger end of the spectrum, I did feel an older version of myself standing there, certain youthful decisions and experiences decidedly in my past. But age was on display all weekend as a positive, an asset. The fans were mature, respectful, and first and foremost there for the music. The artists showcased their elder statesman-craft, and any energy they lacked was made up for with potent spirit and soul. Aging allows you a choice, to either continually experiment or to focus on consistency, refining the things you’re good at; the legends on stage showed how to bring those options into balance over a lifetime. With age there is wisdom, and even if you’ve known what matters for a long time, for fifty years maybe, you can sing it more confidently as you get older. Most importantly, by watching these performers — some of them well over seventy — put on cohesive, meaningful, artful shows, I am now convinced that aging is no hinderance to creativity. I walked away from the weekend with excitement for the future and the process of aging, not dread.
As what is reported to be the highest-grossing music festival of all time, Desert Trip wasn’t quite a priceless experience, but I’ve got to say, for me it was absolutely timeless.